Part II: America's First Spy Sub

Part II: America’s First Spy Sub

by | published November 9th, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a three-part article series written by my friend and colleague, Bill Patalon, as an introduction to my new video series, Spy Tales. The two of us recently sat down and discussed my operations and experiences in counter-intelligence during the Cold War, and you can get access to it right here.

To read Part I of this story, just click here.

Chapter II: When the Juice is Worth the Squeeze

The plan was to park a submerged Cochino about 12 miles off Norway’s Northern coast – roughly 150 miles from Russia’s big military concentration in and around Murmansk. At that time, Red Austin would try to zero in on Soviet missile tests.

By recording telemetry signals, the Pentagon figured it could better gauge how close Russia was to getting nukes, could understand launch and control procedures, and could better-design missile defenses.

But U.S. military leaders also knew they were swimming blind. The Pentagon had absolutely no idea whether any missile tests were scheduled to be run during Cochino’s mission. As was often true of the time, it was just a guess.

And the mission itself was risky – really risky.

To get the “ears” above the water, the Cochino had to “plane up” – ride higher than it would at “snorkel depth” – leaving part of the sail exposed.

And that far north – at that time of year – it was actually dark for only two hours a day. With all the fishing trawlers, commercial ships and warships running through the area, the risk of “detection” – the ultimate “fail” for the so-called “silent service” – was super high.

But the potential intelligence haul was worth every bit of that risk.

For three days, Austin strained to hear something – twisting the dials on his “black box” gear and asking Capt. Benitez to zig the sub one way and zag it another. He collected a few Soviet transmissions – some voice and some in Morse code – but it wasn’t the “motherlode.”

Austin would’ve willingly sat there for weeks to hit pay dirt but the sea exercises with Tusk awaited the sub. So Benitez gave Austin one more shot – at night.

“It was on this last evening that something began to come through,” wrote the authors of Blind Man’s Bluff, the best-selling book about submarine spying during the Cold War. 

“It didn’t sound like a launch, but Austin had also been told to look out for equipment tests.  Maybe that’s what was going on.  Maybe the Russians were tuning up their gear, getting ready for a show.  He asked Benitez to order a turn, to try to position Cochino for a clearer signal. 

Even after that, Austin was still not sure what he was hearing, or even whether it was coming from land or from sea.”

They’d give it another try later – on the same deployment.

Now, however, it was time to for the two subs to learn how to become hunters and killers – the undersea predators in this still-new Cold War.

That’s when the mission went horribly wrong.

And that’s when this new breed of submarine spies demonstrated their heroic mettle.

Chapter III: When Disaster Strikes

On Thursday, Aug. 25, 1949 – Cochino’s fourth birthday – the sub was positioned about 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Gray skies and mist defined the gloom, a whipping wind frothed the water and the Benitez received reports that a polar storm was headed his way. Amid pitching waves, the sub’s planesmen struggled to maintain Cochino’s ordered depth.

Still, the exercise continued. Tusk appeared off the starboard bow, signaling that it was Cochino’s turn to hide. So Tusk moved off – in essence, covering its eyes and counting to 10 as its quarry dropped to snorkel depth.

It was 10:30 a.m.

Just 10 minutes later, a “squawk-box” report from the forward engine room told Benitez that a snorkel “flapper valve” had malfunctioned, meaning seawater was literally pouring into Cochino. 

And seawater can trigger the two non-combat problems submariners fear the most: Fire and poison gas.

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Water can cause the batteries to short-circuit, sparking the fire. And the deadly poisonous chlorine gas can be created by a chemical reaction known as “electrolysis,” when that seawater reaches the sub’s massive batteries – located along the bottom of the boat’s hull, beneath the crew deck.

Starved of air, Cochino’s big diesels ceased to rumble. Executive Officer Richard Wright went back to investigate.

Capt. Benitez glanced at a hydrogen indicator – and experienced a stab of fear when he realized it had swung into the red (“Danger”) zone. Grabbing the microphone, he barked “Hydrogen! Put out the smoking lamp!”

Crewman immediately stabbed out their smokes and a chief petty officer plunged his pipe into a cup of coffee to douse the flames.

As quick as they were, they weren’t quick enough.

Two minutes later, an explosion rocked the sub – with the blast thudding against the steel bulkheads like a gigantic sledge hammer. Austin – who’d been asked by Benitez to man the No. 2 periscope – was slammed, face-first, into the periscope viewer.

Batteries in the middle of the sub were “arcing” – sparking and charging one another – creating a buildup of hydrogen gas. The compartment was soon on fire; when crewman slammed their way into the control room, acrid smoke followed them in.

Cochino sent an emergency message to Tusk (“Casualty. Surfacing.”) via an underwater phone – another piece of new Cold War technology. An emergency ballast “blow” pushed the sub upward – and it surfaced into crashing 16-foot waves.

But failures of emergency-breathing gear delayed firefighting efforts just enough for the watertight door to the afflicted compartment to jam shut – either because of the intense heat or the escalating hydrogen-gas pressures.

Someone needed to force their way into that battery compartment from the other side.

Wright, the XO, volunteered to try.

Minutes later, Wright pushed his way in – triggering another explosion that burned him horribly while ripping away the flapper value that protected the rest of the sub from the poisonous gas. Choking fumes began making their way throughout Cochino.

Capt. Benitez – now outside on the sub’s bridge searching for Tusk – ordered an evacuation of everyone but the crewmembers fighting the fire or manning a critical post. He watched as crewmembers – gasping for air, many only in their skivvies, few in foul-weather gear – began climbing out of a hatch on the sub’s bow. Picking their way back down the wave-and-windswept deck, they lashed themselves to the leeward side of the sub’s sail.

Forty-seven men did that. Another 12 crowded with Benitez on the bridge – in a space designed to hold only seven. Eighteen remained below, fighting the flames, working to restart the engines, or being treated for burns.

Just as the engines refired, one of Cochino’s mess cooks was swept overboard. Tusk was spotted off the starboard quarter. All the signalmen had been gassed, and Austin, the “spook” – and the only crewman still conscious who knew Morse code – used semaphore flags to signal the other sub … one painful letter at a time in the whipping wind.

The crewman was recovered. Then another explosion – the biggest one yet – shook Cochino.

It was 11:21 in the morning.

Most of the remaining crew – with the exception of several other burn victims and the ship’s doctor who’d stayed aft to treat Wright, who wasn’t expected to live – climbed up and onto the bridge. They stacked themselves in human pyramid.

It only got worse.

Former Intelligence Officer Reveals Company at Forefront of Combating Biological and Chemical War Crisis

By 2 p.m., Tusk had come alongside Cochino s lines had been run between the two subs. Capt. Benitez knew he needed to give the full story to Tusk’s captain and asked if anyone would be willing to attempt a life-raft trip over to the other boat. A young officer, John Shelton, and a civilian engineer, Robert Philo, brought along for the “hide-and-seek” exercise, volunteered.

As soon as the raft hit the water, it overturned, dumping Shelton and Philo into the sea. They clung to the raft as Tusk crewman – hand over hand – dragged it over. A wave rammed Philo into the other sub’s hull – head first, though he and Shelton were pulled aboard. But as crewmen tried to revive him, a huge wave swept Philo and 11 other Tusk crewmen into the wild seas. Seven went missing, including Philo, and were never found.

Back aboard Cochino, the situation was dire.

Explosion after explosion ripped through the submarine – with one of the blasts wrecking the sub’s steering mechanism. One of the boat’s wounded fought off the agony, scrounged a big pipe wrench and restored steering by manually working a rudder-control valve – blindly following the navigation instructions piped down by Capt. Benitez.

Slowly, Cochino got back under way.

It was 7:10 p.m. – nearly nine hours since the first blast ripped through Cochino…

A Real Spy’s Declassified Story

Tomorrow you’ll receive the third and final installment of this fascinating tale aboard America’s first spy submarine.

In the meantime, you can check out Kent Moor’s new video series called Spy Tales, in which he and I discuss one of the most infamous poisonings in history, as well as the current biodefense market.

If you’d like to watch it, and learn how to get access to Kent’s new profit opportunity, just click here.


Bill Patalon

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  1. Neil Reitz
    November 9th, 2018 at 20:45 | #1

    Great story, real history. Many thanks. The military never gets the credit it deserves.

  2. William Patalon III
    December 5th, 2018 at 18:09 | #2

    @Neil Reitz

    Neil … greatly appreciate the comments. And I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment about the military … My Dad, who I lost back in June, was a defense engineer … who focused a lot on the Navy in the last half of his career. So I grew up appreciating – and respecting – the folks who protect us all.

    Stay tuned … we have some really neat new content coming … along the same lines. If you liked this one, I’ll bet you’ll dig what we have on the way.

    Thanks again.

    Respectfully yours,

    Bill Patalon III
    Exec. Editor/Editorial Director
    Money Map Press

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